A Travellerspoint blog



Though the guidebook paid only scant attention to a couple of minor attractions around town, it was my mission for today to track them down devoid of a map whilst ascertaining and deciding upon an onward egress. After a grim tasteless Soto dish of mainly tripe for brekkie, all I could find under Ramadan's privations, it was very fortunate then that mission no.1 to track down a secondary ferry pier not only revealed sailing options but a large sign bearing a map of the town complete with points of historical note. Taking photos of this for future reference set me up for the rest of the day, and though the ferry services were not as I had expected, they still left me with an option of sorts. After touring a characterful boardwalk Kampung offering insights into men turning sun drying fish and countless delighted "Hello misters", the only white man in Tarakan stumbled through a couple of airline office enquiries before continuing a long trek through the blazing heat.

The first point of note was one which even the map had not anticipated however, I chanced upon a strange foible in the November 1952 Monument, whatever that was. Given Indonesia's history of random insurrections however I guessed that the blood stained fist thrusting up from the obelisk's peak was a bit of a giveaway. My first intended stop was not evident at all however, a pit stop only promised by the map and yet seemingly nowhere to be found. It transpired that the promised Dutch cemetery turned out to be just half a dozen or so scattered graves amidst a muslim one, and it was only upon asking one of a group of ground workers here that all was revealed. The head honcho happily trailed me up and around the hillside, pointing out each of the evidently more ancient and more imposing headstones, and though as is so often the case only one hadnt been robbed of its inscription one way or another, the sole discernible example was understandable enough even in Dutch to prove my chance discovery an excellent find. It read: "H.G. von Steiger, J. Veldkamp, Leaders of the mining geological research in Boeloengan". Since they were buried together I wondered if they could have been killed in a mining accident, just a pity there was surprisingly no date on it. Crowning the slope the cemetery ran up was another bonus too, a WWII pillbox which could only have been Japanese. My new friend pointed out evidence of shrapnel damage and also a nearby stanchion now bizarrely crowded by graves, which he reckoned had been an anti-aircraft weapon mounting.

It was perhaps fitting then that my next pursuit was the "Makam Jepang", the Japanese cemetery, which was similarly tricky to track down hidden amidst a small charming housing community, but the locals kept me right and even chased after the key when I found it to be closed. A walled enclosure perhaps the size of a tennis court, there were actually only 2 weatherbeaten looking wooden marker posts besides a large stone memorial inscribed in Japanese. Intriguingly, it was adorned with a swastika top and bottom which left me to ponder an irony, there was no telling as to whether these could be construed to be a mark of Shinto devotion or if it was simply in deference to the Nazis! A couple of nearby wells from this era also helped set the scene. The "Hello misters" continued relentlessly, always now accompanied by a smile in a town which obviously saw few white faces.

Next on my prescribed mammoth loop on what was a scorching hot day to be walking was rather inconsequential, a large oil storage tank of 1904 Dutch origin, now accompanied by sporadic modern Nodding Donkeys. The tank looked like it had been bombed and that was a distinct possibility, at the Labuan Museum I had learned that the presence of oil had made Tarakan a strategic priority during WWII and so it was bound to attract such attention. Amazed that my rudimentary digital photo "sign" map had so far proved spot on, my by now rural escapade brought me to yet more quirky sights, a series of drilling towers also of this era, seized as a priority by the Japs from the Dutch. From there the passing of a sizeable present day army contingent relaxing by pyramid stacked M16s outside a stadium was an unusual sight, a little intimidating but all the attention I drew was the eternal "Hello mister". It was at their nearby camp where I had to ask permission to enter the base in order to view the next drawcard, a memorial commemorating the original site at which 225 Australian troops killed in seizing Tarakan from the Japs in June 1945 had been temporarily buried. As much a monument to their endeavour, it now sits incongruously marooned on this army base by a volleyball court. Still in amazement that my "camera map" was proving much better than many handout and guidebook examples, it was a very long trek from here back to the town centre, during which I traipsed up and down hills and along sidetracks in search of some promised Japanese and Dutch bunkers but to no avail. It had been such a full on day that with the light now fading I decreed that I'd had enough for one day anyhow, feeling much more than in a long time that I had just slogged around a double Postie shift in a heatwave. I had to force my legs to carry myself the last mile but a surprisingly accomplished day was finally rewarded by enduring an unenticing airless restaurant for the sake of frequenting the only beer den around. Soaked in sweat, caked in dust, the beer was warm and the food was crap, but the day had been good.

It was over that first few Bintangs that it was now decision time, I had to make a tough choice as to a plan for onward advancement, there were many options but all unfortunately entailing something of a marathon. The most obvious solution for getting out of Tarakan promptly was the Pelni ship scheduled to leave that night, it was an incentive in its own right as an Indonesian institution, yet the cruise to Balikpapan would actually take me further than I wanted to go and was a trip of a whopping 22 hours. With no road out of Tarakan Island or on the immediate mainland I had learned too late of the boats to Tanjung Selor from where I could have connected to the interesting town of Berau, but that would now require a second night in Tarakan and was contrastingly only a short hop. From there it would still be a 16 hour bus ride down to favoured destination Samarinda, but tough travelling in southern Sumatra made me wary of such an endeavour. Typically, the flight there was the most expensive of the lot I had sought quotes for, and though I could have simply flown to Berau or Balikpapan instead, that anorak allure went against the "overland" ethos. In the end I chanced a quick Mandi back where I had left my bag and then plumped for a day on a ship for the sake of just getting on with it succinctly. Even the Bemo driver was refreshingly friendly here, and I arrived at the ferry port to find a scene I had not anticipated, a great swathe of humanity animated in their many varied agendas. There must have been 100 minivans or more waiting to whisk away the impending arrivals and yet bizarrely amongst all this the Pelni office was again closed and I struggled to secure a ticket. My improving Bahasa allowed a few policemen to point out a tiny unstaffed table amidst the car park melee as the administrative centre, and here I paid more than what had hitherto been quoted to the point that it now made a flight look more attractive. Certainly after boarding to find the Ekonomi section a stifling sea of bodies cheek by jowl, it dawned on me just what I'd let myself in for. It was going to be crowded, hot and sleepless. In short, bloody long.

Posted by andyhay2 17:50 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Sabah, Malaysia to East Kalimantan, Indonesia


One last shave in more salubrious surrounds was required before hitting an ATM to top up with just enough Ringgit for the boat fare to Tarakan. The touts were certainly reminiscent of Indonesia here in their aggression and persistence, but I weathered the storm to track down the one office I knew offering the deal I wanted. Most boats from here ran to nearby Nunukan the first Indonesian town across the border, but the service to larger Tarakan much further on was my goal. Incredibly for the third time in 3 days the office at which I had lost my rag the day previous only had one word to say to me, "Besok" (tomorrow) and I could not believe my ears. Talk about manana mentality, it gave the Iranian Post Office a run for their money. The touts had tried to cajole me up to another counter where certainly you could buy a ticket for the imminent departure to Tarakan, but the asking price of 100 Ringgit was more than the 75 advertised elsewhere and certainly more than I had banked on. In frustration I dumped my bag there in spite of their protests and hoofed it back through the heat to one of Tawau's inconveniently located ATMs again, only to be dumbfounded all over again upon my expected return when I was told that the ticket counter was now closed. The 3 day farce would have tested the patience of a saint and after a year in Asia I was very far from god, you can bet I let rip and let the locals know how screwed up their whole sorry set up was. I could guess that they had closed early in order to finalise their passenger list, a perversity considering the general culture of recklessness and disorganisation, but a year in Asia had also taught me a trick or 2. The alternative was to simply try to circumvent all that and either pay or bribe my way aboard directly at the jetty, a strategy somewhat complicated here by the need to first negotiate Malaysian immigration. Standing in line I didnt mess around in accosting an official looking guy sporting what looked like a passenger list and in explaining my frustrations in stunted Bahasa, thankfully his sidekick took up my cause even though it transpired that it wasnt his boat. Crazily, it transpired that the ticket could still be bought from another official source, just a desk on the pavement outside, from where I breezed the stamping out process now absent of a queue. Squeezing through the horde of hundreds of newly arrived Indonesians, the final obstacle was just that, an obstacle course of clambering over and around cargo and baggage arrayed all over the decks of interceding craft until I finally reached my boat the "Tamindo 3" stationed 3 out from the quayside. By now thoroughly bemused by the whole 3 day fiasco, you better believe I was happy to be on that boat, yet in the circus I hadnt even had a chance to blow the last of my Ringgit on so much as a cup of tea.

I departed Sabah soon enough to find myself scudding over a twinkly blue sea studded with menacing looking fishing platforms resembling what struck me as old style Space Invaders. The fast, poorly frequented service in comparison to the crowd at Arrivals testified to the one way traffic of often illegal migration into Malaysia by Indonesia's economic migrants, of whom doubtless many were absorbed by the oil palm plantations. That economic dichotomy had me freshly pondering the downward step I was now assuredly taking, and I wondered if East Kalimantan would muster all the drawbacks that dirty, anarchic Pontianak had on the opposite coast. And yet I wasnt too worried about it considering my recent privations had certainly acted as a suitable precursor. Semporna had been a dump to rival any in Indonesia, undoubtedly the worst Malaysian town I had frequented, and a renewed grubby pavement culture of hawkers and beggars was full on there enough. Thus I broke free from Malaysia for the last time, an indulgence first through enjoyable exotic Sarawak tempered by costlier and more package orientated Sabah which I had elected to finally afford less time in any case. Initially expecting a month to suffice in this venture, the northern segment of Borneo had taken me a day more than twice that to reconnoitre, even with the corner cutting involved. Perhaps it was a certain relief to be turning another corner then, turning another page as it were, since though Sarawak had been a singularly excellent experience throughout, my time in Sabah had been one of trials and frustrations qualified little by redemption. It was the climbing of Kinabalu which stuck out as a sole satisfying achievement.

Arrival at Tarakan came after a speedy 3 and a half hour trip past fishing platforms, large low lying distant islands and most curiously barges piled with coal, from where that came I knew not. Upon arrival a little forgotten obstacle in a sea of hopeful Ojek drivers were so eager as to impede my landing by coming onto the boat, and I sat it out with the patience and resolve only experience earns in unprecedentedly having to wait for the onboard immigration official who had retained my passport. Confused as to this new practice it was fortunate then that upon enquiry to 3 friendly harbour police guys they beckoned me onto an adjacent bus and it immediately departed down the jetty to the arrivals hall. As the only "Orang putih" (White man) my passport had been singled out which suited me fine, no queueing required, and it was fortunate that I knew to expect the unusually loaded query as to how long I would stay. My visa was good for 2 months but I sincerely hoped I wouldnt need all that time (heard that one before), I knew however that if I declared only 1 month for example then thats all the time the rubber stamper would grant me. There were Bemo drivers as well as Ojeks to dodge, hoping to score a lucrative charter from the dumb rich guy, but resolve to immediately track down the Pelni office which I knew to be nearby shirked them off before long. Pelni was Indonesia's national shipping line and a service I might promptly require since there were no roads out of isolated Tarakan. Though the office was closed it mattered little since the schedule for the next month along with the fares were thankfully displayed in the window. And I hit a jackpot of sorts. With sailings proving sporadic at around one every 4 days and only to limited destinations, a night boat the very next day leaving for Balikpapan was perversely a little too far south for my immediate liking. I had hoped to head for less distant Berau or Samarinda, but it was certainly a timely opportunity to make good progress in the right direction. Away from the ferry terminal shenanigans a Bemo was more straightforward than the shark infested ones in dropping me along Tarakan's one very long main drag by the mosque, from where my hotel of choice was just a stones throw away. Perhaps undeserving of all the praise heaped on it by the guidebook, the Hotel Taufiq was at least there to be had and at a little over 2 quid a night good enough for me. Just.

The change of host was immediately evident in many subtle ways, with East Kalimantan delivering the familiar onslaught of friendly "Hello misters" and spontaneous excited waves and smiles. There was much less English here though and certainly less fresh paint about, and I now had to stick "Ribu" (a thousand) onto the end of any prices. There were many more motorbikes than cars to dodge again, many of them scouring the pavements, and soon I struck upon an old favourite in a Padang cuisine restaurant, a delight I had forgotten to expect. Alas, fellow favourites Roti and Martabak were now conversely no more since I had left behind the influence of Malaysia's ethnic Indian population. One thing hadnt changed though, the fair maidens of East Kalimantan were every bit as alluring as the Sabah girls, even if they were all tiny. It seemed however that Ramadan's grip was a little tighter around here though, with all the Indo restaurants closed and no Chinese establishments to alleviate matters. In using the last of the day for an initial foray, I eventually stumbled across a few humble food carts selling only a single staple, one of them finally blessed me with my first meal of the day in an excellent fresh noodle soup. In this bent I had also spied some charming terraced wooden architecture, then elaborately styled pointy roofs synonymous with Indonesia all over it now seemed. There was also the odd banner newly celebrating the countries 62nd anniversary. Tarakan seemed to typify the country in being rudimentary and downright scummy in places, yet building work and many projects recently completed testified to the fact that though she was lagging behind in the race with Malaysia, she was still up and coming. Alas there was no beer to be had in Tarakan that night even if the petrol was now sold by pavement stalls out of vodka bottles, and a net cafe I discovered was too hot to be bearable. I ran back to another old convention then, a squat toilet and cold Mandi.

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)



Just who exactly are the Tartan Army?

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Semporna to Tawau


Kept up until 2am by the Cherrypickers somewhat insensitive party antics in a muslim town, and then failing to sleep due to infernal heat and mosquitos, I had learned the hard way why the ostensibly indulgent resort the Dragon Inn was actually very cheap, and I found myself out on the street mega early that morning in a haste to escape its uncomfortable bullshit vibe. After a handy lone Chinese establishment blessed me with a Ramadan busting omelette brekkie, the minivans to Tawau were just another short convenient hop away, I even managed to secure the comfortable front seat for once. The final hour of Sabahian roads leading to Tawau at the end of the line were like never before bordered by a constant swathe of palm oil plantations as far as the eye could see, and Tawau evolved much larger and thankfully somewhat cleaner than the hovel which is Semporna. It begged the question of where they ever dreamed the name up from, Semporna meant "Perfect".

Tawau wasnt perfect but certainly more endurable, finding myself a more comfortable than average room at my first den of choice. Though I had arrived outside a modern and fresh looking up-market development, the old city where my lodging lay still betrayed vague hints of character in timber panelled 2 story shopping terraces, and the mosques here were both fine and atypically central. Since it was still morning I decided to try to clear Tawau's sole perceptible draw out of the way, the dubious and little known attraction which was a Cocoa Museum. Though I had only seen a few scant signs of its propagation I knew it to be an important cash crop hereabouts and a factory at an unknown location out of town held the promise of telling me all about it. I had the habitual challenge of tracking down the correct bus and then establishing when to get off in my quest for Teck Guan, problems which I thought I had squared away with the crew boys only to be outdone. It was with growing disdain then to realise that despite my prompting, now that the boy had my money he didnt care to remember, and so the long hot slog back past industrial operations the way I had just come was a trial I didnt need. The signing was ambiguous in revealing its location but strangely it was the readily appreciable aroma of cocoa on the wind which betrayed the factory's proximity, and quite an unusual experience walking down a road to the constant smell of chocolate. Walking into a reception area in search of the museum found the headscarved office girls initially too shy and nonplussed by the presentation of a white man at their work, but one eventually managed to elicit between the giggles and downward glances the alternative entrance nearby. The handy presence of a young guy with broken English alongside the security guard was bitter sweet then in revealing my arrival at the right spot, yet the museum was closed and was only ever opened by prior appointment it seemed.

That rather kicked that one into touch then, and so I elected to continue my traipse the rest of the way back into town in order to attempt some small redemption in checking out vague points of note I had spied from the bus. I scoured around a Christian cemetery in search of any chance colonial insights but drew a blank, and so had to make do with first a Commando monument to commemorate those lost during the "Konfrontasi" and then a congregation of diverse monuments in the corner of a large Padang. These proved to be a small belfry design chosen as a monument to the 1918 armistice, and for no particular reason another in celebration of the centenary of the Olympic movement.

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Semporna Day 2


In spite of my resolve to get a move on, today was a sacrifice deliberately dedicated to relaxation, justified by the desire to catch the Japanese Grand Prix, for once viewable at an amenable time since I was only one hour behind Japan. In contrast to the hazy hue around Semporna which made the prospect of snorkelling less than ideal, the Grand Prix started under the safety car in monsoon conditions, I was almost jealous though for the chance of a touch of such freshness! Semporna's tourist enclave promised to make it all possible, yet an unexpected power cut still managed to partially scupper the best laid plans before long. It shouldnt have been too much to ask and it led to just one more incentive to high tail it to Australia. And then the world took the piss all over again in deeming the internet unavailable due to the power cut scrambling the server and so the remainder of the day could not even be invested in proposed time on my diary. Descent into beer and football on TV again for the want of better options was even curtailed by the irritating antics of the latest horde of dive junkies, the Cherrypickers let the whole town know about their painfully childish exhuberance until long after I was trying to sleep through it just across the water. It was such a dichotomy of behaviour that the locals must have thought them all nuts and only ripe for extortion. It was a redemption in that at least my resolve to resist the vague draw of snorkelling had spared me what would have been the nightmare of their excruciating party scene. Man, I was a grumpy bastard these days, but at least I didnt make an arse of myself singing bad karaoke.

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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